Chapter 19

The Forest Lair

As soon as Sano and Anina told Yiling they wanted to stay with her, to put some distance between themselves and those hunting them, Yiling led them to an underground river reachable from the hovel. They had packed food and other necessities for the journey, stripping the hovel bare of supplies. Sano had thought Lord Matiban too sick to travel, but the warrior never once complained as he drowsily followed them into the boat.

Sano marvelled at the gleaming stalactites suspended from the roof of the large cavern. There was a torch set at the back of the boat, lighting their way. It cast waving shadows against the cave walls, amplifying the size of the rocks on the banks. The slosh of water from the paddle echoed all around, as did a random dripping sound emanating from somewhere Sano couldn't locate. According to Yiling, this underground route led to the Kunting river, joining it in the southern part of the kingdom. From there, an adjoining eastbound tributary would lead them into the depths of the southern forest of Katam.

The occupants of the boat had been silent since the beginning of the journey. Yiling was quietly steering the boat at the front, Lord Matiban sat with his eyes closed across from Sano, and Anina stared at the frothy waves of the river with even more sullenness than usual. It seemed to Sano that he was the only one itching to know more about what they ought to do with King Bunawi.

Unable to stand the silence any longer, Sano cleared his throat. “So let me get this straight, Yiling,” he began. “No matter what you do – whether you fight back or not – you're sure that Bunawi will try to kill us. There's no possibility of him backing off?”

“None that I can see,” Yiling agreed. “And we can be sure that Bunawi will condemn the rest of Katam along with me. He has his reputation and ego on the line.”

The boat rocked as they avoided a passing boulder, and Sano held onto the side. “You really plan to kill the king?”

“That's our dilemma. Assassinating Bunawi gets us no sympathy from other people in the kingdom, and we risk becoming more resented. Somehow we need to eliminate the king in a way that makes the rest of Dayung sympathize with us.” Yiling huffed. “That doesn't give us a lot of options.”

“What we need is to find dirt on him,” Sano mused. “We can't be the only ones who hate him.”

“No, but think about it. If you were a neutral party, who would you side with? The powerful person who brings wealth and prestige, or the poor people who don't have any accomplishments?” Yiling countered.

She turned to Lord Matiban, who leaned against the lip of the boat, listening attentively to their exchange. “You worked with Bunawi for ten years. Do you know any quirk of his that might outrage people?”

“Bunawi frequently mixes up the names of the gods,” Lord Matiban offered weakly. “But quite frankly, in the eyes of the lay people, that isn't anywhere near as bad as being the Ghoul of Katam.” He smirked at Yiling, and she sent him a flat-eyed stare. Lord Matiban's skin was wan and clammy, but the warrior held himself with a poise few would possess if their shoulders were pierced by a spear.

“How about your friends in Gamhana? Can they help? Gamhanans are strong,” Anina stated. Sano was surprised she was involving herself in the conversation at all.

Yiling used her paddle to push them away from another rock. “No, unfortunately not for something like this. It was just trade we agreed upon. The Gamhanans will never initiate conflict with the Kingdom of Dayung. All they wanted was for Bunawi to lay off their islands. Now, if Bunawi's retaliation somehow endangers the Gamhanan Isles, then they might send some assistance. But I really hope it won't come to that, because by that point, we're already doomed.”

Sano took a roll of leaf-wrapped sticky rice cake from their food basket, even though eating wouldn't stop the buzzing of anticipation just beneath his skin. He'd thought that exhaustion and their morbid situation would have sobered him, but he found himself instead swelling with too much purpose.

Throughout Sano's isolated life in the mountain, he had dreamed up hundreds of ways to save people, hundreds of ways he would be adored and wanted – but killing the king of Dayung had never been one of those. Although his mother had always talked about Bunawi with an ominous air, she had also made it clear the he was not someone you ever thought of crossing. Bunawi was like the typhoons that came every year, rage-filled and unstoppable.

And yet, the more Sano thought about it, the more convinced he was that he could never live out in the world with Bunawi still in it. Sano's mother might want to run away and hide again, but what if there was a way to convince her it was time to stop hiding? What if he could help build the kind of world where she could once again be a Hoarder? What if he could be the kind of son who made all of her sacrifices worthwhile? There were so many things Sano wanted that he would never have if Bunawi remained in power.

“There is one idea we can pursue,” Yiling spoke, knocking Sano out of his reverie. He unwrapped the rice cake and took a bite. “I can duel with Bunawi. It's an age-old tradition of settling conflict among two leaders who wanted to avoid too much bloodshed. They would prove themselves in a fight to the death, and the winner would become the ruler of the contested region. As heir to the Katam chiefdom, I technically still have the right to request this, and as a fellow warrior, Bunawi is duty-bound to accept. In any case, Bunawi wanted to duel with my father thirty years ago, didn't he? And he was so upset when he didn't get the chance.”

Sano knew about those duels from his mother's stories. However, Bunawi might not have enough honour to leave the fate of Katam up to a two-person battle. Bunawi was more likely to raze down their border with his warriors. And there was one more problem.

“But the tradition is only meant for established leaders,” Sano pointed out. Lord Matiban and Anina's gazes fell on him. Yiling kept her eyes on the river. “It ensures that participants in the duel have enough support from their own respective people. After all, if you're sending only one person to determine the future of your entire chiefdom, it has to be someone the people support.”

Yiling nodded, and her wild, frizzy hair bobbed with the movement. “I didn't forget that part. That's why I didn't suggest this at first, but we don't seem to have any other ideas.”

“Do you think after all these years, Katamans might still acknowledge you as their leader?” Sano asked. Anina was already shaking her head.

“We'll have to find out,” Yiling said, but she didn't sound very enthusiastic.

They reached a wider section of the cavern, and the river began to flow more smoothly. Yiling put away her paddles and braced herself at the front of the boat.

“Hang onto something,” Yiling warned. Sano had barely clung to the side when the boat started speeding through the river in a rush. Water jettisoned from the sides. Air whipped by their faces. The torch frizzled and burned low, almost going out.

In the end, what Sano expected to be a boat ride of about two days spanned not even one. They had left the hovel a little before noon, and they emerged out of the underground cavern that same night. Yiling had stopped and rested a few times, but other than that, she had used her magic to maintain a swift, steady speed the entire way through. The stars twinkled overhead as they merged with the Kunting river.

Sano fell asleep soon after. He'd gotten used to the boat's movement enough to find it lulling. Or perhaps it was the lingering exhaustion from the previous days and the warmth radiating from his filled belly. He woke to the early dawn light, dimmed by the trees that framed the sides of the river.

“Where are we now?” Sano asked.

“We've just entered the southern Katam forest,” Lord Matiban said. “We'll be home soon.”

They had travelled so quickly. No wonder Yiling had been able to steal all of the things she had and distributed the luck baskets to various villages without being conspicuous. She could weave in and out of not only shadows, but entire places, in a snap.

Anina crouched beside Sano. He couldn't tell whether she'd gotten some rest, but she must be feeling good enough to practice pushing magic out of her foot again. Anina held the end of her staff against her foot, brows scrunched in concentration. Suddenly, a bright burst of blue light fleeted through one of the scripts. Anina gasped. She looked up, and caught him staring.

“Did you see that?” she asked.

“Sure did!” Sano sent her an encouraging grin. “I think you're getting the hang of this.”

Anina's lips stretched in a wavering smile, as if she didn't know whether this was a sufficient reason for happiness in the midst of an otherwise dreary situation.

Sano had hardly spoken to Anina during the boat ride; he had been too focused on the king and what lay ahead. He really did want to straighten things out with her though. He still couldn't understand why she was so reluctant to defend Katam when Bunawi was her enemy now too.

The trees surrounding them grew larger, their boughs thicker and more dense. Less light filtered through, and the musk of rich earth and wood drenched the air. It was a smell very familiar to Sano. Their boat slowed. Vines dangled before them. Birdsong echoed. A curtain of climbing plants hung ahead, and when the boat forced its way through, they arrived at a clearing. In the middle of this clearing was a hut, not unlike the one Sano and his mother used to own, but bigger.

“This is our stop,” Lord Matiban announced as if they were merchants passing by villages to sell their wares. He helped Yiling guide the boat to the bank. Sano and Anina climbed out, and Yiling led them into the hut.

The fact that the hut belonged to the Ghoul made Sano expect it would be as strange and bewitching as her, but it turned out to be quite normal. The main room was spacious. There were wooden shelves by the wall filled with pots and jars, sheets of bamboo and leaves, rolls of linen and bundles of crisply-folded fabric. A squat table made of rattan stood in the middle, surrounded by cushions and mats of beige and faded green. Plants were everywhere, sitting in pots on top of the shelves, or hanging in cheap, clay bowls from the ceiling. A wide window, with its cover propped up, let in enough light to give the space a cozy feel.

On the far side of the room was a doorway leading to a slightly higher level. It was covered in a decorative net of mother-of-pearl flakes, through which Sano could glimpse a narrow hallway. The sleeping chambers must be up there.

“All right, here we are,” Yiling said. The place had an immediate effect on her. With her wide, open stance, and clear expression, she seemed more relaxed somehow. “There's a pond nearby where you can freshen up. I can lend you some spare clothes if you need.”

By mid-day, Sano and Anina had each taken turns at the pond, cleaning themselves and tending to their injuries. The crisp, cool water of the pond had invigorated Sano, easing the aches in his muscles and the sprain in his ankle. He'd returned to the hut, much refreshed, where Yiling served him and Anina some lime juice and mashed purple yam. Lord Matiban had retreated to a room, resuming his much-needed rest.

“I've actually met you two before,” Yiling said, splashing some coconut milk in her purple yam. “I was dropping off a basket to the village closest to the foothills. I don't know if you remember, but it was during that stormy night. I found you both lying on the muddy ground, unconscious. I couldn't just leave you there, so I brought you to the village.”

Sano gaped at Anina. “Why didn't you tell me you fainted that time too? I thought you carried me all the way to the village!” Instead, she'd carried him to breaking point. Sano didn't know whether to feel touched or sorry.

Anina's cheeks reddened. “I didn't remember fainting. I just... woke up in the village, and I had no idea how we got there.”

Yiling chuckled. “Well, now you both know.”

Anina cleared her throat and spun back to Yiling. “Did you make one of those big leaps? How do you do that? I've never seen anything like it. You don't even seem to use any anto scripts at all.”

Yiling tilted her head, eyes roving the beams of the roof as if the answers were up there. “It's still a bit of a mystery to me too. All I know is that I only have to think a command to make my magic take effect. I don't need to write anything down. So when I make my leaps, that's actually a mix of the ground and the air giving me a boost. I can still power anto scripts, but I don't have to. When my abilities first manifested, my father suggested that it might be because I'm not fully human physically, and so, may not be fully human spiritually either.”

“I see,” Sano said. “Nature spirits don't need magic to affect their surroundings. They can just influence their domain however they want, however their worshippers ask of them. Does that mean you're actually part... er, mango tree spirit, or something? And this somehow warped the way you perform magic?”

Yiling laughed. “I wish I could go to a shaman and find out, but the opportunity for that hasn't presented itself yet.”

“Say, since you seem to know a lot of unusual magic,” Anina interjected, tugging on her skirt. “Do you know a way a person can gain magic?”

“More than what they were allotted at birth, you mean?” Yiling clarified. “Not innately, no. My father taught me that Karingal gives you a lump sum of magic at birth.” It was pretty much the same answer that Sano had given Anina back in the foothills.

“Hold on, what do you mean by 'innately'?” Anina pressed. “Do you mean that there might be an external way that a mage can obtain magic?”

Yiling combed through her frizzy hair with her twiggy, claw-like hand. “Well, there are a few ways that a mage can seem like they became more powerful. Maybe their full potential hasn't manifested until that time. Or, perhaps there were other mages who pooled their magic into the script, and nobody noticed these additional mages.”

Anina hesitated for a moment, and then said vaguely, “In the case I'm thinking about, there was only one person powering the script. And this mage has never seen that kind of power emerge from themselves again, so it's not that they've reached their potential. In this one-time event, the mage demonstrated a sudden increase in power.”

Yiling laid both her hands on the table, and squinted her eyes at Anina. “I think I know what this is about. You might be onto something, but you might not be asking the right questions.”

Sano gulped a mouthful of juice. He hadn't expected that response. It was the first time somebody had confirmed the possibility that a mage could actually gain magic.

Anina seemed taken aback too. “You know what I'm talking about?”

“You're referring to Bunawi and Angtara, aren't you?” Yiling slammed her hands on the table. “Yes! I've had my suspicions as well. Strong enough from the outset, and yet suddenly in the last few years, they started doing all sorts of impeccable feats, like summoning tidal waves, of all things. Did you know they managed to make an entire hill sprout in the middle of the Dayung capital? A hill! They moved the entire royalty compound onto that hill. Matiban and I wondered if they were actually getting stronger, but we brushed it off. And now you're saying you suspect the same thing?”

Anina squirmed and flashed Sano an uneasy look. He mirrored it, but he wasn't sure if they were concerned for the same reason. Sano had no idea which mysterious mage Anina was referring to, but surely, the fact that Bunawi and Angtara might be getting stronger was a more foreboding thing to hear.

Yiling's sudden excitement dissipated into calm reflection. She rubbed her chin. “Whatever it is they did, it must have been external, right? It would be strange for both of them to get stronger at the same time otherwise. I wish we had the time to find out more, but I don't think we can spy on them further.”

Anina lapsed into a sombre, contemplative silence beside Sano, sipping her drink.

“Have you settled on a plan, then?” Sano asked. Would Yiling be strong enough to face Bunawi if he'd somehow gained even more magic?

“I'm going to think of alternatives to the duel,” Yiling answered. “If by tomorrow, I don't come up with anything better, it would be best to start gauging support. If I put it off much longer, I'm just giving Bunawi time to retaliate while I sit idle.”

“Can I help?” Sano sat upright, smiling eagerly.

“Are you good with strategy?”

Sano's smile faltered. “I don't have a lot of practical experience – probably none, actually – but my mother has told me lots of stories about the rebellion, if those count!”

Yiling scratched her head. “Uh, perhaps it's best if I wait for Matiban to wake up. But in the meantime, you can help me gather some things for dinner.”

“Sure, I can do that.” Sano nodded. He didn't really expect Yiling to believe he was a good strategist; even Sano himself wouldn't leave the fate of an entire chiefdom on someone who'd fallen for a petty scam. But at least he'd shown his interest. If he involved himself well enough, he was certain he could find something useful to contribute, something that could lead to a better life for him and his mother.